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The Apprentice: Reality, Ha!

I'm not usually one to wring my hands about the decline of popular culture. I haven't spent more than five minutes with a video game -- but I don't believe they hurt kids any more than sitting in front of a TV for six hours a day.

Hip-hop probably qualifies as no more shocking for me than Led Zeppelin did for my parents. I'm even OK with reality TV. Sure, most of it is dumb, but remember what TV had to offer before reality: Compared to The A-Team and Baywatch, American Idol strikes me as downright compelling.

POISON SPREADING. But I draw the line at The Apprentice. For my overseas readers (or for U.S. readers living under rocks), I should explain that the show, to my complete dismay, remains one of the most-watched TV programs in America. I thought if we just ignored the show, it might just go away.

Instead, it is metastasizing -- now there's a sequel, The Apprentice: Martha Stewart, whose star is still sporting a house-arrest-ankle-bracelet tan line.

The original Apprentice prominently features blow-dried blowhard Donald Trump as imperial master over the fates of 16 ambitious business neophytes who compete in artificial challenges designed to test their mettle each week.

VIEWERS FOOLED? At the end of each show, they meet in Donald's mahogany-walled boardroom. There, he uses the words, "You're fired" (a phrase I understand he had the audacity to attempt to copyright) to pronounce one of them unfit for service at his enterprises.

So what's the harm of a little Donald and Martha every week? Plenty. With every generation, we bet our future on the promise of a new crop of entrepreneurs and managers. The creativity and focus of these newcomers will help us defy the odds and move to even higher levels of progress and prosperity.

What bothers me about The Apprentice is that some of the 15 million viewers who tune in each week may actually believe that the ideas the show promotes will help them achieve success in business. They won't -- except, perhaps, in the most dysfunctional of organizations.

Here's my take on The Apprentice guidebook on succeeding in business.

1) It's more important to look good than to be good.

It doesn't take more than a few minutes of viewing to figure out the name of The Apprentice game: Always come out looking better than your fellow contestants (it doesn't hurt to be better-looking physically too).

People move ahead via sophisticated manipulation of their fellow contestants, Trump's minions, and Trump himself (not a tough task to anyone who understands the narcissistic personality).

In contrast, most successful people I know got that way not by looking good but rather by actually being good. Some of them are easy on the eyes, too, but that is very much incidental.

Most of them started their careers in humble positions -- certainly not as apprentices to some titanic ego -- and paid their dues for years. They learned a lot about a market, a set of customers, or a business discipline and then used that knowledge to make a contribution to a company or an industry.

They attained success by truly bettering themselves -- not solely by impressing someone in an expensive suit.

2) There's no "I" in teamwork (but there is an "M" and an "E").

The Apprentice is rigged to be good television -- and nothing pumps the ratings like a good catfight. So while contestants are ostensibly asked to work as teams, each week's "money shot" consists of Trump pushing them to stab one another in the back (or in the face, rather, since the person stabbed is always present).

This provides a few rare moments of perverse amusement (sort of a human demolition derby), but it also reinforces the myth that people get to the top of the business ladder primarily by stepping on others.

While you'll certainly find as many mercenaries in business as you will in any other field, in my experience, these people represent the exception rather than the rule.

We often forget that most people in America work in small outfits far from the intrigues of Wall Street (98.5% of American companies have sales of less than $25 million a year). Most businesspeople know that the key to winning is surrounding themselves with great co-workers and finding ways to help make them successful.

3) Suck Up and Kick Down.

Anyone curious about what it would feel like to work in the Trump organization need look no further than Trump's two sycophantic sidekicks -- septuagenarian George Ross and the glacial Carolyn Kepcher.

These two are the poster children for the suck-up and kick-down style of management. They obsessively scrutinize every move of the contestants for anything that might reflect badly on the Donald -- and level withering criticism when they find them.

When Kepcher and Ross enter the boardroom, they prostrate themselves before the hackneyed platitudes of their emperor. Their utter humorlessness suggests that what seems like a virtual impossibility must, in fact, be true: They are not in on the joke.

MUTATED STANDARDS. Perhaps I have underestimated the TV audience, and nobody is really going to pay much attention to a guy born on third who thinks he hit a triple. Or a domestic diva turned convicted felon.

But if some young entrepreneurs out there are in fact taking their cues from The Apprentice, it's a tragedy. Hunter S. Thompson once said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

In the age of The Apprentice, it has, and they have.

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